In April, researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities showed how the preferences of the wealthy far outweigh those of ordinary Americans in policy decisions. The (totally fair) conclusion drawn from this is that the United States may be better described as an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
The reason that our country might be descending into oligarchy is that we privilege the voices of the wealthy by allowing them to spend huge sums of money on political advocacy. Political speech funded by corporate profits is toxic. It only reflects the aims of the largest shareholders and effectively silences the voices of ordinary people. Our interests are equal, but our financial resources are not. And corporations donate in their own interest — that is, to produce more profits.
This year, Washingtonians have a chance to address this on the ballot with Initiative 1329, which would be our state’s contribution to a Constitutional amendment that would limit the influence of money in our political system. I-1329 declares that money isn’t speech and that corporations shouldn’t have the right to the speech of living, breathing persons.
It’s currently much too easy for the wealthy to get their way with policymakers. Big donors can win elections for candidates and influence their decisions while they’re in office. Money in politics is a self-perpetuating problem, which makes it doubly dangerous. Not only do moneyed interests get their way, but they continue to rig the system in their favor for future policy decisions.
Disclosure laws are helpful but ultimately inadequate. Simply knowing who contributed how much to whom does not give a complete picture of a policymaker’s biases. For example, as a donor, just as effective as a contribution to Candidate A is a threat to donate to Candidate B. Tactics such as those go unreported.
Eliminating the undue influence of money in politics is the only way that government will be able to address the significant policy challenges of our time. Now more than ever, the best lens to examine government policy is to follow the money. A few examples:
Climate change has gone largely unaddressed despite the dire threat it is and the destruction it has already caused. But who has more dough to offer politicians: polluters or those concerned about the future of the planet? Political contributions by the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries regularly dwarf those of environmentalist groups.
Reform in the financial industry since the 2008 crisis has been weak, and Wall Street still threatens to sink our economy again with little consequence to itself. The explanation is obvious here as well: Bankers contribute huge sums to politicians in order to protect the dangerous industry that treats them to such lavish profits.
Wealth inequality is becoming more unjust and obscene by the year, and our current campaign finance laws make it coexistent with political inequality. The rich and their children get enough of a leg up in education and social status and don’t need any more access to lawmakers than they already have.
The legal consequences of ending corporate personhood will be problematic. There will be a lot for courts, legislators and regulators to sort out. But really, that’s small potatoes compared to continuing on the current course. It is literally suicidal as a democracy to let money dictate so much of our policy.
I-1329 might never take effect, even if it passes in Washington this fall. But it may be the most important vote you cast in a while. Check it out, and consider taking part in democracy saving itself.
Editor-in-chief Jack Clinch is a senior political science major.